Born in Toronto and based in New York, Moyra Davey is the recipient of the 2018 Scotiabank Photography Award—the largest peer-reviewed photographic art award in Canada, recognizing an established artist working in the medium. Davey is renowned internationally for her multimedia practice examining interiority and disclosure, and the intersection of private and public discourse. This first survey exhibition includes portraits, still lifes, and photographs of subway scenes, along with a suite of films. The accompanying publication presents a coherent overview of Davey’s visual work and writing; both the exhibition and the book serve as prestigious acknowledgements of her outstanding contribution to the field. The following text is excerpted from Brian Sholis’ essay, “Lifetimes,” in Scotiabank Photography Award: Moyra Davey (Göttingen: Steidl, 2019).
Moyra Davey’s photographs and videos meditate upon how we value—and work through assigning value to—what makes up our lives: family, friends, what we read, the objects that sustain us and nourish our sense of ourselves. […] In essays and video scripts, Davey weaves together her experiences, the lives of kindred spirits, and the theories of influential critics. These texts are not necessarily confessional; what they disclose, instead, is her intellectual temperament, which is both peripatetic and literary.
The figures she weaves through them also haunt her art: philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin, 18th-century women’s-rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft and her rebellious daughters, radical French dramatist and novelist Jean Genet, British writer and feminist Virginia Woolf, and others. Davey approaches these touchstones indirectly. As with her photographic accumulations of fragments, she often draws from these writers’ letters and journals, their minor or uncelebrated works, attempting to piece together, in part, how they lived creative, committed lives […]
Davey’s predilections as a writer echo those she displays as an artist. Her essays come in fragments, in vignettes. Sometimes the main narrative is overlaid with sidebars created from favourite quotations, which reminds me of how she has hung framed photographs over unframed prints on the gallery wall. Or perhaps the useful analogy is the photographic contact sheet. Each quotation, each meditation, may or may not be linked to what surrounds it, but, taken together, they generate their own logic and reveal underlying preoccupations.
Writing and photographing come together in a recent series that depicts subway commuters recording their thoughts on paper. The subject is a powerful metaphor for being simultaneously alone and with others. Davey’s writers are mostly unaware of her presence, or the presence of those pressed close to them. Yet an aura of concentration does not close them off from others; it connects them more intensely to the people their writing addresses. Davey has noted that she began making these pictures “just when [she had] been writing about the disappearance of the figure from [her] photographs.”
The figure, of course, is not the same as “the human.” Though people did not appear in her photographs for decades, the decisions Davey has made about her work in that time suffuse it with human presence. […] What she has done, and what we can now see properly and begin to treasure, is patiently develop her observational skills. Her artistic voice is now lyrical, infused by intellectual communion, representative of a hard-won balance between her roles as maker and receiver, and between those of artist, writer, and above all, reader.